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Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 International Roundup part 1 - Swans

This is a long overdue way of me making up for the live review I never wrote after I witnessed Swans play live in Auckland way back on 6 March 2011. I’m not sure why I didn’t review it at the time. It was truly one of the most impressive and sonically intense live performances I’ve ever seen. Probably only matched by seeing Thorr’s Hammer at Supersonic in 09. Maybe it was general procrastination (most likely), all the bad shit going on back then (Mathew Hall had just been murdered and the Christchurch earthquake had both happened in the last month) or maybe I was put off by the rushed and almost flippant answers Michael Gira gave to the email interview  I had sent him (which was arranged via the local promoter). He did apologise for that in the accompanying email (due to the fact he had limited time to answer it while on tour) though and lets face it he’s a total GC in person. I got to meet him briefly after the show and whenever you order anything by Swans (or one of his other projects) from his label, Young God Records, he always signs the releases and even writes notes like “Thank you for your support” on the outside packaging. 
Anyway, here is a rundown of that show by way of reviews of the two Swans albums that were released in 2012.
The version I got
Swans - Live - We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head
2xCD (Young God Records)

I got the pre ordered limited edition of 1000 hand printed, coloured and signed version with bonus demo songs for ‘The Seer’. It was sold (out in less than half a day) by pre-order directly from the Young God Records website in order to raise the funds to record ‘The Seer’ studio album. But because the general version is the one that’s readily available I’ll focus on the live tracks that are contained on both versions in this review*.

The version you'll get
Like my live experience ‘We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head’ opens with a 23 minute track, which after a slow building 10 minute feedback drone intro, crashes down into a crushing rendition of ‘No words No thoughts’, the opening song from the ‘My father will guide me up a rope to the sky’ album. This sets the tone for further alternate versions of songs from that and other albums throughout. And they really are different. For example here is the “My father will guide me up a rope to the sky” version of ‘Eden Prision’: 

This is the version they played at the Powerstation, in Auckland. Which is close to the version which appears as the second to last track on ‘We Rose...”

Completely fucking different!!!

Second track is a stabbing percussive version of ‘Jim’. Once again it’s quite a variation to the mellower almost folk studio version.
Next, finishing off the first disk are three adaptations of early Swans songs. The first being ‘Beautiful Child’ originally from the 1987 ‘Children of God’ album. Unlike the original grandiose orchestral version, this one is made to sound like it’s an old wringer washing machine with throat cancer, that has been turned on to full so as to hypnotize you and draw you into it. This is followed by ‘Your Property’ from ‘Cop’ which is a mellow version that builds up in intensity throughout. Again it’s very different to the original metallic monolith of sound that it came from.
Orginal version:

Current live version:

Lastly we have “Sex God Sex” from ‘Children of God’. Surprisingly this is the most loyal adaptation on ‘We Rose..’ as it’s very close to it’s studio version.

Disc 2 opens with a 30+ minute version of ‘I crawled’ with a differently structured ‘The Seer’ as it’s Intro. But more about that in the next review. That’s followed by the version of ‘Eden Prison’ discussed earlier. The album closer is another tune from ‘The Seer’ - ‘93 Ave. B.Blues’, a strange unstructured but building composition of instrument noises which finishes with Michael Gira performing a solo vocal only version of “Little Mouth” from “My father...”

Whilst being practically the same set as the live show I saw, and despite it being a highly satisfying recommended listen, one thing that the album doesn’t capture (and most likely never could capture), is the enveloping intensity and dynamics of being in the same room as all six Swans. Hammering out their art with the intensity of a blacksmith bashing out his life’s masterwork against an Anvil.
Swans - The Seer - 2xCD (Young God Records)
The highly anticipated album that had been hinted at throughout the ‘My father will guide me up a Rope’ tour and it’s succeeding live album. Lets take a ride through it.....

‘The Seer’ opens with the beautifully grandiose and melodic ‘Lunacy’. One of my 3 favourite songs on the album. It builds gently with it’s repetitive title chant (chorus /choir backing vocals by Al and Mimi from Low). As it unfolds, subtle tensions are introduced in the form of discordant notes and chords. The chant then seems to become a scream, but cleverly, it’s only given a more direct delivery which creates the illusion of it being more. At this point the song breaks into it’s darker second section, with a haunting repetitive chant of “Your childhood is over”. 

“Mother of the World” plays with repetitive, almost annoying rhythms at the beginning before breaking into the main body of the song “In and out and in and out...” A good track but probably my least favourite on the album. 

“The wolf” a short 90 second folk ballad which sits nicely as an interlude before the imminent epic onslaught that’s about to happen. The only thing giving any indication of which, is the strangely placed bed of Pink noise that cuts in halfway through.
Forth is the title track, a 32 minute growing soundscape of layers and rhythms that twist and turn taking you on a voyage to places unknown and unexpected. Whereas the live version on “We rose from your bed..” culminated in a reinterpretation of “I crawled” this version is structured differently to the live album and contains new and entirely different sections. It builds up to the rather odd composition of which I assume is “The Seer” itself. What is “The Seer” exactly? Is it the mysterious Mad Hatter cat-dog creature that appears in the album cover art? Whatever it is, it comes back in the next song. 
“The Seer Returns” which would be the next in my 3 favourite tunes on the album. It’s an upbeat number with strange almost eastern harmonies and twisted poetic lyrics about a greasy beast in a field of sticky black mud. It’s almost like Lewis Carroll is being channeled through nightmare musical instruments from Wonderland. This interestingly is the first of two songs to feature Jarboe on backing vocals. Interesting in the fact that not so long ago (i.e. read my interview with Gira), Michael Gira was saying he had no interest in working with her again, and Jarboe herself had posted on facebook that she didn’t believe the new line up was the Swans without her. I’m not sure, but I think there might have been a change in feelings between the parties once she witnessed the new Swans live.
‘93 Ave. B blues’ is an unstructured droning discordant attack on the emotions, by way of creating an uneasy atmosphere which then leads into the acoustic ‘The Daughter Brings the Water’. This has a subtle underlying bed of what sounds like someone going insane screaming.

Disc one ends.

Disk two opens with the other of my 3 favourites, the beautiful female vocal (by Karen O) folk tune ‘Song for a Warrior’. This could be considered the odd tune, yet it seems to shine like a beacon of hope in the insane darkness that is ‘The Seer’. I’m sure if Gira were to make a video and promote this as a single to commercial radio (or whatever the fuck it is the mainstream music industry does these days), it would be a massive hit. I’m also certain that this is some sort of commentary or anti-War anthem aimed at the current conflict in the Middle East. The closing chorus of “Send them home” definitely points that way. But what the fuck do I know.
‘Avatar’ starts off with an industrial grating noise which is then layered by a chorus of church bells. The band kicks in with a pulsating rhythm which as you guessed it, builds in intensity before dropping back to the core of the song “Your life is in my hands....”

‘A piece of the Sky’, a 19 minute track, opens with what sounds like a fire burning and then cuts to the second contribution from Jarboe, a looped section of whaling. Other sound loops begin to layer themselves upon this, developing quite an interesting texture, until the point it starts to create an uneasy stomach churning mood. This all turns out to be a long intro, as when the final song section of “A Piece of the Sky” kicks in, becoming quite a beautiful melodic number. Creating a sense of relief, much like what happens in the earlier transition from 
‘93 Ave. B blues’ to ‘The Daughter Brings The Water’. I’d actually have to add this as my 4th favourite tune on ‘The Seer’. 

The final 23 minute closer ‘The Apostate’ is much like the title track in that it builds and builds until breaking into the core of the song, a driven pulsating hypnotic bass line. This gradually fades into almost nothing, when you get hit by an aggressive barrage of percussion and screaming before an abrupt stop. Then it’s over.
The Seer is a magical dark and mysterious journey, woven by the magician that Is Michael Gira and his incredibly talented band of Swans. It captures elements from each part of the Swans history, from the early monolithic grinding slabs of distortion to the mid era folk albums and then takes it to new uncharted places. Not only that, but it does all those things on a new level. A master work so to speak. If there is a theme here it would have to be around dark slow building tensions releasing into beauty and light . Reviewers aren’t exaggerating when they say that this is the album that Gira has been working toward throughout his 30 years of SWANS. That’s definitely what this is.

Conclusion, In order to get a fully rounded feel of the ‘Swans’ experience, you should listen to Swans studio albums to hear how the music was intended (at that particular point in time). You should listen to the live albums to hear how those songs, along with older ones, are reproduced and sometimes developed further. Also so that you can hear developing new music being performed prior to it’s studio recording. Lastly you should take any and every opportunity you can to see them live so that you can experience the full enveloping sonic experience that you can’t get from either live or studio recordings.

* - I will say one thing regarding the extra demo tracks, all performed Solo acoustic by Gira. They give you an insight into the skeletons of SWANS music and where they evolve from to their final form or forms. It’s definitely another factor that is worth exploring if solo acoustic folk music is of your liking. If you are interested in exploring this side of his music I recommend checking out “The Milk of Michael Gira” which features solo originals, demo versions of songs from ‘My Father...’ and acoustic versions of ‘Angels of the Light’ tunes.

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